Emily Roberts received a PhD in biomedical engineering from Duke University in 2014. She is the founder of the websites Grad Student Finances, PhD Stipends, and Evolving Personal Finance. Connect on Twitter with @GradFinances.
One of the most talked-about topics within personal finance in the last couple years is student loan refinancing. Student loan refinancing is taking out a new private student loan and using it to pay off your old student loan(s), federal or private. The student loan industry is being disrupted by traditional banks, peer-to-peer lenders, and technology companies. Combining those new players with the current low interest rate environment has produced incredibly low-cost alternatives to the standard student loans that have been issued over the past decade or so. Current graduate students with student loans from undergrad or grad school may be looking at these new options with great interest, especially because of pervasive advertising by one of the industry leaders.
But is student loan refinancing advisable or even possible for graduate students? Below are several questions graduate students with student loans may be asking when exploring refinancing.
Is the refinanced student loan a better deal than your current student loans?
First and foremost, you should only consider refinancing your student loans if another lender will give you a better deal than the one you currently have. This better deal will almost certainly be defined by a lower interest rate on the debt, although there may be other reasons to switch if the interest rates are close, such as locking in a fixed interest rate or lowering your monthly payment. If the new loan involves an origination fee (many do not), you must make sure that the decrease in interest rate justifies the up-front fee.
When you take out any new debt, you must read the fine print associated with your loan very carefully. This is especially true for student loans, as even private lenders may offer a few perks not available for other kinds of debt, such as a grace period or forbearance. For refinancing student loans, you need to have a full idea of what both your current lender and your possible new lender are offering you so you can be sure you are not forgoing any relevant benefits.
Can you defer refinanced private student loans while you are in grad school?
One of the major benefits of federal and many private student loans is the option to defer the loan payments while you are enrolled in graduate school. When your student loans are deferred, no payments are due, though interest will still accrue if the loans are unsubsidized. Deferment is likely one of the perks you want to preserve through your refinance unless your loan payment amounts will be so small that you can easily manage them on your stipend. Chances are that in-school deferment will be available if you are creating a new student loan, though you should carefully check on this with each lender you are considering, including possible limits on the deferment term.
Should you ever refinance federal student loans?
If you refinance federal student loans, you will almost certainly give up access to the unique benefits that the federal government provides, such as flexible repayment and forgiveness. If you think there is a possibility that after graduation you will 1) need, based on your income, to extend your repayment term to lower your monthly payment or 2) both enter a career field (e.g., public service) that is eligible for forgiveness and want to take advantage of that option, you should probably not refinance your student loans at this time.
That isn’t to say that you should never refinance federal student loans. If you are confident you won’t need any of the flexible repayment options, getting a lower interest rate on the debt now makes more sense than preserving the option to lower the monthly payments. The latter would almost certainly result in you paying more in interest on your loans both because of the presumably higher interest rate and the extended repayment term.
Some federal student loans are subsidized, which means that the federal government is paying the interest on the loans while they are deferred. (Starting in 2012, all graduate student loans are unsubsidized, though subsidized undergraduate student loans are available to qualifying students.) Refinancing subsidized federal student loans means that the interest rate would go from effectively 0% to a higher interest rate; while the subsidized federal student loans are deferred, it seems unlikely that any private student loans would be a better deal.
Can a graduate student refinance student loans?
As in any refinancing process, to get a good deal the borrower must have a sufficient income and good credit. Both of these requirements demonstrate the ability to repay the debt. Some lenders may have explicit minimum incomes and/or credit scores, while others may consider a more holistic picture of the borrower and the debt.
The likely sticking point for graduate students is going to be the income requirement. In general, the most attractive refinancing offers come from lenders who require high incomes and/or low debt-to-income ratios. Graduate students with high debt loads who earn typical stipends will probably find themselves ineligible for refinancing until they start earning more money after graduation. However, it doesn’t hurt to check on the published minimum salaries or even apply for pre-approval from a few lenders (as long as the process doesn’t involve a hard credit pull) to see if you are eligible.
While refinancing student loans to a lower interest rate is helpful, it is not a cure-all when it comes to surmounting your debt. You still have to actually work through the payoff process. One of the downsides to refinancing (or consolidating) student loans is that it gives you the impression that you’ve done something to get rid of your debt, when all you’ve really done is reshuffle it. But as long as you are still willing to pay down your debt energetically, either during or following grad school, and you are not giving up any relevant benefits, refinancing can save you quite a lot of money over the long term.
Have you considered refinancing your student loans?
[Image by Flickr user Cory M. Grenier and used under the Creative Commons license.]
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